CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Classrooms have not changed much over the years. Fifty years ago, lecture halls were filled with chairs that fanned out from the center of the professor’s podium. Behind the beetle-browed scholar would reside chalkboards and in front of him students. Some lined the front rows, pencil at the ready to take notes; others snoozed away in the back.
Now, projectors have been introduced — the ingratiating apple on the desk replaced by glowing Apple signs of Macbooks that illuminate classrooms. Whiteboards have mostly replaced old chalkboards and some of the larger halls even come equipped with microphones so that a lecturer’s drone can reach everyone’s ears.
These changes are real, but technology has merely upgraded traditional classrooms. The learning mechanisms remain the same ones relied upon by educators centuries ago. According to Anant Agarwal, Professor of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the last real educational invention was the printing press; it codified knowledge so it could be shared. He’s hoping the Internet will take the next step: making high-quality instruction available to all.
When Agarwal is not teaching, he is busy serving as the president of edX, a website founded by MIT and Harvard University to provide what are called massive open online courses (MOOCs) to millions of people around the world. Partnering with several universities — including Harvard, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley — edX lists courses in various fields ranging from statistics and quantum physics to philosophy and music. They are all offered for free.
Agarwal is not content with simply providing lectures and homework online. He wants to make a truly unique experience for students that capitalizes on the new generation’s fluency in technology. As such, courses show lectures in small parts and then ask pertinent questions right after. Answers are all immediately graded by the computer and encourage students to keep trying until they can respond correctly. Some courses even include sandbox environments so that students can exhaust their creative juices. For instance, in one electrical engineering course, students construct circuits online, and the computer evaluates its efficiency.
On June 19, a forum called “MOOCs in the Developing World” was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. There, education experts and innovators discussed what role MOOCs can occupy and whether they can replace classrooms in poor countries.
EdX boasts 2.5 million students, 1 million of whom are from developing countries. The impact MOOCs can have, Agarwal asserts, is already proving far-reaching.
Many, however, are skeptical.
Professor Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, believes MOOCs — as they exist today — are culturally unaware and neo-colonial. Since the West offers all these courses, he says, there is an implicit presumption that Western teaching methods will be effective across all cultures. He doubts this, for it is not certain that Western teaching methods even work in the West.
Altbach also expressed his concern that MOOCs could widen class differences; he imagines a world where the rich elite attend campus-based universities and everyone else checks in online.
Stanley Katz, a professor at Princeton University who teaches public and international affairs, believes that it is dangerous to impose one system — like edX or another MOOC organization — on one country.
He also thinks MOOCs might only prove useful for science and engineering courses. Courses in the humanities — that rely on discussion and reflective feedback — would exist as limp shells of corresponding classes in traditional seminars.
Agarwal agrees that MOOCs may never, or not yet, replace traditional classrooms, but that they are a useful tool for countries that lack the resources to hire highly qualified teachers or invest in textbooks for students.
In June 2013, Agarwal gave a TED talk entitled, “Why massively open online courses (still) matter.” He insisted that blended learning — a cross between the online edX experience and the traditional classroom — was the future.
He recounted an experimental pilot conducted by edX in cooperation with San Jose University. A circuits and electronics class that experienced a 40 to 41 percent failure rate year after year adopted Agarwal’s blended learning for a semester. The results: the failure rate dropped to nine percent.
MOOCs face plenty of challenges. According to the U.N., 25 percent of children enrolled in primary school drop out before completion, and nearly 123 million people between the ages of 15 and 23 are illiterate.
But Agarwal’s edX and its contemporary organizations, despite skepticism, remain hopeful.
– Shehrose Mian